Can Malcolm Turnbull make us excited about democracy again?
Constructing positive arguments about the vibrancy of Australian democracy has proved challenging in recent times, especially as the national sport of revolving-door prime ministers has proved so enduring. As Oscar Wilde might have put it - to lose one PM can be considered unfortunate, to lose two looks like carelessness, but to ditch a third looks like competitive overreach.
There’s .. the out-there possibility of a renewed burst of creative and far-sighted political leadership in Canberra
Can the new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull break the cycle? And in so doing breathe a bit of spark and utility back into the body politic? Turnbull’s talents are evident - he comes across as intelligent, competent and modern. What a relief that in just a few short weeks we have gone from former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s bleak world of evil incarnate to a successor who seems to represent the opposite - above all, one who understands that national confidence needs a boost. Hurray for that!
Not everyone may feel that there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian, as the new PM has put it, but by god, we can all sense Turnbull’s own self-belief and his vast ambition for the country he now leads. In turn, it may be that Australians are desperate for a bit of success. Certainly a return to some integrity in national policy-making would be a good start. And at the risk of sounding like Pollyanna, there’s even the out-there possibility of a renewed burst of creative and far-sighted political leadership in Canberra.
The case for the above scenario is not as thin as one might expect, especially as the last of the knuckle-draggers (aka former Queensland Premier Campbell Newman) has now orchestrated his own exit with that well-worn cry it was all the fault of those bastards in the media. Thank you Campbell. We’ll politely refrain from mentioning that the appointment of the unsuitable Tim Carmody as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was all your own work. But this is so yesterday.
Of all our recent crop of PMs, Turnbull has the greatest capacity to reclaim the sensible centre of politics and in so doing, restore the faith of the mainstream in our democracy
Look around the states now and you see Premiers who eschew ideology and look as if they are up to the job. South Australia’s Jay Wetherall, Queensland’s Anastasia Palaszczuk, and especially New South Wales’ Mike Baird and Victoria’s Daniel Andrews, all understand that believable policy advocacy has to be accompanied by effective implementation. People want to see that what you are selling them actually works, and will make their lives better.
Turnbull is fortunate in his timing. Short of the heroic and endlessly complex task of achieving constitutional change, the easiest way to get some runs on the board is via a bit of positive federalism. Critically it’s the non-mining states, Victoria and NSW that are now showing the strongest growth and both these states are led by leaders who are smart and adaptive.
Above all Baird and Andrews are keen to cut the kinds of deals that will help entrench Sydney and Melbourne as the country’s knowledge and innovation centres. The opportunity is there for Turnbull to work constructively with both, particularly in the agile and fast-moving area of the new hi-tech industries.
Get this right and Malcolm Turnbull will likely secure his place in Australian political history as the national leader who effectively tapped the zeitgeist and managed to flip the economy at just the right time.
Too many of our institutions have failed us, the political environment remains febrile, and the self-interest of particular sectors trumps the national interest almost every time
There is a less sunny scenario. I’ve noticed that the spruikers for the unbridled benefits of democratic capitalism are close to silent when it comes to the shocking wage fraud that has been exposed at 7 Eleven, and could well be systemic across different national franchise outlets, be they petrol stations, nail bars or take-away food outlets. Where’s the sustained political rhetoric condemning the failure of our institutions to deliver wage justice and the determined action plan to ensure that a sizeable chunk of the service economy isn’t built on the back of illegal wages?
It took the persistence of a consumer advocate as well as the investigative work of the ABC’s 4 Corners and Fairfax to dig deep on this one and in so doing, to shine a light on practices that blow a very large hole in our concept of democratic fairness. Conservatives like to tell us - as Federal Resources Minister Josh Frydenberg said recently - that a good society is one in which every individual is free to self-actualise without fear. Tell that to the young Taiwanese student who is had to cop $9 an hour instead of the regular rate of $17 and you¹ll be laughed out of the room. Or maybe we want to quarantine the self-actualising for our own - those lucky enough to have been born to the golden soil of Oz? In which case Frydenberg’s good society is looking a little peaky as the enlarged army of graduates across the country struggle to get jobs that match their qualifications. Not to mention that oh-so-modern rip-off of the unpaid internship.
I’m all for democratic capitalism, but it has to work, and has to be seen to work for everyone. Australia is fortunate in that it has nothing like the high unemployment rates and resultant disaffection of Europe. And courtesy of our booming housing sector, enough Australians still feel wealthy due to asset inflation, so we’ve largely avoided the desperation of the declining middle class in the United States.
But who doubts that we are at something of a tipping point? Too many of our institutions have failed us, the political environment remains febrile, and the self-interest of particular sectors trumps the national interest almost every time. Of all our recent crop of PMs, Turnbull has the greatest capacity to reclaim the sensible centre of politics and in so doing, restore the faith of the mainstream in our democracy. We know that he is an engaging and thoughtful individual. His own instincts and temperament embrace agility and change. For the sake of the nation let’s hope Turnbull can marry these concepts with the idea of a generous enlargement for all.
Maxine McKew is part of 'Democracy in Transition' - a major conference being held by the Melbourne School of Government in December.